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Friday, May 13, 2022

How Other- and Self-Compassion Reduce Burnout through Resource Replenishment

Kira Schabram and Yu Tse Heng
Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 65, No. 2


The average employee feels burnt out, a multidimensional state of depletion likely to persist without intervention. In this paper, we consider compassion as an agentic action by which employees may replenish their own depleted resources and thereby recover. We draw on conservation of resources theory to examine the resource-generating power of two distinct expressions of compassion (self- and other-directed) on three dimensions of burnout (exhaustion, cynicism, inefficacy). Utilizing two complementary designs—a longitudinal field survey of 130 social service providers and an experiential sampling methodology with 100 business students across 10 days—we find a complex pattern of results indicating that both compassion expressions have the potential to generate salutogenic resources (self-control, belonging, self-esteem) that replenish different dimensions of burnout. Specifically, self-compassion remedies exhaustion and other-compassion remedies cynicism—directly or indirectly through resources—while the effects of self- and other-compassion on inefficacy vary. Our key takeaway is that compassion can indeed contribute to human sustainability in organizations, but only when the type of compassion provided generates resources that fit the idiosyncratic experience of burnout.

From the Discussion Section

Our work suggests a more immediate benefit, namely that giving compassion can serve an important resource generative function for the self. Indeed, in neither of our studies did we find either compassion expression to ever have a deleterious effect. While this is in line with the broader literature on self-compassion (Neff, 2011), it is somewhat surprising when it comes to other-compassion. Hobfoll (1989) speculated that when people find themselves depleted, giving support to others should sap them further and such personal costs have been identified in previously cited research on prosocial gestures (Bolino & Grant, 2016; Lanaj et al., 2016; Uy et al., 2017). Why then did other-compassion serve a singularly restorative function? As we noted in our literature review, compassion is distinguished among the family of prosocial behaviors by its principal attendance to human needs (Tsui, 2013) rather than organizational effectiveness, and this may offer an explanation. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally more beneficial for actors about engaging in acts of kindness and care (e.g. taking someone who is having a hard time out for coffee) than in providing instrumental support (e.g. exerting oneself to provide a friendly review). We further note that our study also did not find any evidence of ‘compassion fatigue’ (Figley, 2013), identified frequently by practitioners among the social service employees that comprised our first sample. In line with the ‘desperation corollary’ of COR (Hobfoll et al., 2018), which suggests that individuals can reach a state of extreme depletion characterized by maladaptive coping, it may be that there exists a tipping point after which compassion ceases to offer benefits. If there is, however, it must be quite high to not have registered in either the longitudinal or diary designs.